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Interview: John McCrea of Cake

During the final two weeks of 2001, SoundSpike is looking back by revisiting several notable artist interviews that we've published throughout the year. The following interview first ran on Aug. 27.

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Since first breaking through in the mid-'90s with "Rock & Roll Lifestyle," from its debut album "Motorcade of Generosity" (Capricorn), Cake's infectious blend of funk and rock has consistently scored hits for the Sacramento-based band.

Cake's new album, "Comfort Eagle" (Columbia) digs deeper in that established vein, with singer-guitarist John McCrea's piercing observations about art and commerce drolly delivered over eminently danceable beats.

The band has gone through many personnel changes over the years, and only trumpeter-keyboardist Vince DiFiore and McCrea remain from the days of "Motorcade." Cake's current lineup also includes Pete McNeal (percussion), Xan McCurdy (guitar) and Gabriel Nelson (bass).

The video for the band's current hit, "Short Skirt/Long Jacket"--a unique, McCrea-directed clip in which people on the street offer their opinions about the song as they listen to it on headphones--is currently in heavy rotation on MTV.

McCrea talked with SoundSpike about short skirts, long jackets, writing songs and the increasingly communal nature of the Cake songwriting process.

The video for "Short Skirt/Long Jacket" is hilarious. How did you set it up?

Mainly, the video was a desperate attempt on my part to not have to make a music video. I didn't want to have five white guys lip-syncing and pretending to play instruments in an urban-decay setting. So I just figured maybe we should try turning the camera around. For some reason, I'm interested in that. For a few years, I've been thinking about different kinds of things with turning the camera around.

I think it's true that people find celebrities less and less interesting. They're fairly predictable, whereas, [with] people, who knows? This person could be a mass murderer or a salesman for a food company--the possibilities are endless. But actors and musicians--pretty much you know what they're going to do. They're going to get famous, become alcoholics and then date actresses, whatever.

Did you tell the people in the video that it was your song?

Not necessarily. They signed a release form, and the name of the band was on there. But we didn't emphasize who the band was. ... Most people didn't know who the band was.

The final result must have been very satisfying.

It was. I didn't actually go along with the cameraman, because I didn't want to blow the cover. But I sent them out there with instructions, and the footage he brought back to us--we actually we had several different camera people do it--was fairly terrific footage. It's amazing how interesting people are.

It seems like with all your records, you have a couple songs that really satirize a certain element of the culture, going back to "Rock & Roll Lifestyle," and "Italian Leather Sofa." And on the new record, "Comfort Eagle," and "Short Skirt/Long Jacket" are in that vein. Do you get the sense that people pay attention to lyrics in songs?

Well, I think if they do, they just think I'm an a------. But I think mostly they don't. I think mostly people have a good time with it.

It's kind of like how "Born in the USA" was played at the Republican National Convention, when the song itself is fairly critical. I think when you release a song, it's not yours anymore--although sometimes you have a say [as to] whether or not Toyota uses it in their Camry ad. I would venture to say if the song is effective, it's going to be misinterpreted. If it's engaging enough, a lot of people will misunderstand it. So that's the way it goes.

When I was a kid, I really enjoyed the Creedence Clearwater Revival song ["Bad Moon Rising," with the lyric,] "there's a bad moon on the rise," but I always thought it was, "there's a bathroom on the right." So in a way, there's something to be said for a song being multi-purpose.

I do agree with David Byrne to a certain extent: that music lyrics are tricks to get people to listen to music. I would say that they are a trick, but they can serve their own purpose. One of the main reasons for them is to give people an excuse to sit back and relax and listen to the sound--like they don't feel justified listening to these songs unless there's some sort of storyline. I'm fine about people misinterpreting lyrics--in fact, that's why this band doesn't print their lyrics. I think Bob Dylan is a great lyricist, but he was a lot better before he started printing lyrics.

In the song "Comfort Eagle," you were obviously sending up this record exec type, but it also seems like it could be about the experience of being in a band. As a musician, do you feel like record companies see you as a brand instead of a band?

Yeah, I think so. Certainly. There are people at record companies that understand that's something that can be destructive towards a band. ... But there are also other people who don't give a funk. You really can't say this label or that label. There's usually good people and bad people at every label.

Do you feel that "Comfort Eagle" is in part about that experience of it not being, "Wow, here's some great songs you wrote," but instead, "How can we market you guys?"

Certainly, and that's the imperative of the capitalist dream. "Insert music product here." Sometimes you feel like you're just being fed into this system of handlers. Last week it was Bon Jovi, this week it's Cake, next week it's Third Eye Blind. They're taking you out to dinner and giving you free beer and telling you how great you are, and next week it's someone else. I think musicians can be misled by their own vanity. It's important to remember that everyone is insincere when they say they like you.

Is there a song on this record that you thought was about something, but upon singing and recording it you realized it was about something else?

"Meanwhile Rick James" is an interesting one. I wrote it a long time ago, before any of this crap with Rick James getting arrested ever occurred. Once that happened, it was very strange because it almost seemed like the song had been written about something that would take place at a future date. Honestly, I don't know about Rick James' personal life, other than what I heard, but the song kind of happened, and then it was about something and it was kind of eerie.

What was it initially about

It was about something in a very general sense. There was a guy in Berkeley named Rick James, and Rick James' music always frightened me as a 10-year-old because of its overt sexuality. Kids got freaked out by the '70s and '80s, so I think that's what it's about in a general sense. It's not the kind of song where I'm trying to tell a story. But the weird thing about it [is that] it ended up telling a story.

Do you feel like having a more stable lineup impacted the album?

"Long Line of Cars" was one of the first ones we started working on, and it started us towards a higher degree of collaboration. Xan and I worked on the guitar riff, and I realized at that point--and really not any sooner--that everybody in the band was really creative, and that Cake would be alright. We went through some, I think, overly publicized personnel changes and things like that, which sort of makes one feel icky at times. But the most important thing that I realized about this band during this album--and especially with songs like "Opera Singer" and "Long Line of Cars"--is that whereas once we had a table that had maybe one or two legs, in terms of there being a songwriter and a guitar player--in most bands, two people usually write most of the parts: basslines, trumpet parts, whatever--on this album, the table now has four legs, maybe even five. There's more structural integrity. It's now really a band. A band in what I think is the best sense of the word.

In terms of arranging the songs, there's some real [input] from everybody. And on those two songs in particular, I started realizing that--although I wrote the songs--my real dream for the band was always that four people--maybe five people--are coming at the same thing from different angles, and hopefully, creating this seamless-sounding structure. It's good to have everybody really happy to be involved, and also good to have really talented people all focused on one thing at the same time. I feel like with this album, it's all just beginning.

That said, I'm anxious to get onto the next album. With the song "Opera Singer," Vince [DiFiore] wrote his own trumpet parts, Gabe [Nelson] wrote his own bass parts, Xan McCurdy wrote his guitar parts, and of course I did some writing, too. It's not all on my shoulders anymore, and that feels really good. ...

When I hired Xan McCurdy, I knew he was probably the only guitar player that could play with us, as far as the way he plays, but I didn't know that he was capable of being creative. He hadn't written anything, [but] I figured that someone who played guitar that well was probably capable of this kind of creativity. And with this album, I realized, "Damn, he is." I really went out on a limb. I can't tell you how I relieved I am that he worked out. I think he's getting better and better, as is everyone in the band.

Was there a specific part he wrote where you were like, "That's it. He can write his own parts."?

With "Long Line of Cars," there's a fast guitar riff that comes in halfway through. That came from a rhythm I had in my head for that song, and I talked to Xan--"Do you think you could try coming up with something that would fit that rhythm?" And so he came back with [the riff], and it went so well with the bassline--it fit in really well--that was the moment I realized we could do this.

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